How to Choose a Telescope for Beginners
The top performers in our review are the Celestron NexStar 130SLT, the Gold Award winner; the Orion StarSeeker IV 130, the Silver Award winner; and the Levenhuk SkyMatic 135, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a telescope for beginners to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 15 products.
Stars have intrigued us since the first time we looked up at the night sky. The dim twinkles in the distance, the long streaks of light that paint the sky blue-white for a moment, and the so-close-you-could-touch-it brightness of a planet that rises in the twilight can be inspiring.
Most astronomy experts have this advice for the beginner astronomer: Read about the stars and keep stargazing. You don't need to be able to identify every celestial body, but it's important to know the difference between satellites, aircraft, stars and planets. Once you familiarize yourself with the sky, you might be eager to buy your first telescope.
If you want to follow the advice of experts, get to know the sky first and then buy a pair of binoculars. A quality pair may not show you the deep sky objects that a telescope can, but they can show more detail than the naked eye, and they can help you get to know the sky better. If the budding astronomer in your life is taking a shine to all things science, you should consider buying a microscope to help satisfy your young one’s curiosity.
Buying a telescope for beginners can be daunting. Aperture, focal length, magnification, altazimuth and Dobsonian – there is a plethora of words with which you may not be familiar. This guide can help you understand what it all means and which telescopes have what you need so you can easily make a decision on the best telescope for you. You can learn more about astronomy and the wonders of the night sky by reading our articles on telescopes for beginners. You can learn more about astronomy and the wonders of the night sky by reading our articles on telescopes for beginners.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison on loan from some companies and purchased the others. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Telescopes for Beginners: What We Tested, What We Discovered
Put your mind to it and you can learn anything. However, it helps when a company creates tools that make the learning process easy and fun. A beginner's telescope should be easy to use right out of the box – from assembly to setup to operation. The go-to telescopes, which are computerized and motorized, on our lineup include libraries full of stars, planets and galaxies that you can find with the telescope's help. Some of these telescopes move automatically to train the sight on your target.
When you're ready to buy your first telescope, you also need to consider how and when you use your telescope: at night only, for birdwatching or for other daytime viewing. It's important to buy a scope that is effective at showing you the details you want to see.
There are three main types of telescopes, but for the purposes of our evaluation, we focused on the two most common types: refractor and reflector telescopes. Refractor scopes feature a convex objective lens at one end of the sealed barrel and an eyepiece on the other. These telescopes work by bending light through a lens to form an image. Refractors tend to provide a higher image contrast than reflector telescopes, and you can use them during the daytime without any additional accessories to correct the image, but this type of scope is also more expensive.
Reflector scopes, on the other hand, use a concave mirror rather than an objective lens. The tube or barrel is open at one end, and the primary mirror at the end of the barrel sends light through the tube, where a second mirror magnifies the image and sends it to the eyepiece on the side of the telescope. Reflector telescopes are generally inexpensive, but they need to be collimated, or aligned, periodically. Because the tube is open at one end, you also need to clean them frequently. Reflector telescopes are not ideal for terrestrial daytime viewing, because the image would be upside down.
To see the rings on Saturn and craters on the moon, you want a telescope that has the biggest aperture, which is the diameter of the primary lens or mirror, at a price you can afford and with decent focal length. In fact, many space enthusiasts will tell you that the only thing that really matters in a telescope is aperture.
As important as it is to choose a telescope that you understand how to use, it's also important to choose one that gives you the best-quality image possible. The larger the aperture on a telescope, the more light comes through that opening. That means you can see dim and faraway stars better than you can through a telescope with a smaller aperture.
We considered each tester's experience with the magnification set to 50x per inch of aperture for each telescope. Everyone started with just trying to find the moon, because it was the brightest light in the sky. Afterward, we found a bright star, focused on it and then performed the snap test, in which one tests the telescope's ability to focus on a star quickly and clearly, rather than the star bleeding into focus.
The detail you can see on a planet, for example, is determined by a few different factors, including focal ratio and the highest useful magnification, but is largely due to the eyepiece you use. A 10 mm eyepiece, for instance, gives you a clearer image but a smaller field of view. Those that offer an overall higher magnification received more credit than telescopes with lower magnification, because you can get more impressive views of planets.
Although focal length and focal ratios are extremely important to those who engage in astrophotography, they are also important specifications to pay attention to when choosing a telescope to meet your needs. Longer focal lengths allow higher magnification and give you more telescope for your money. We assessed all of the factors that comprise the optics of each telescope on our list and considered those in our scores so you can choose the right one for you.
Ease of Use
The easier a telescope is to assemble, haul out to a remote and dark location, and set up once you're there, the more likely you are to stick with the hobby. So, when we tested all of these telescopes, we focused on finding telescopes that are easy to assemble and don't take much time to set up or take down.
Our testers approached each telescope with the curiosity of a newcomer. They familiarized themselves with the knobs and the movement of the telescope on the mount. If the device included go-to capabilities, they set up the controls by inputting the location and time of night and began the star alignment. We considered all of these factors in our scores for ease of use.
We also considered the initial assembly of each unit. Some telescopes require no tools and have straightforward instructions on how to put each piece together – we had those telescopes up and ready to align within minutes. Other telescopes are bulky and include several pieces that you have to assemble yourself, including a tripod in some cases. In the case of the Orion StarBlast 6i, we had to disassemble what came in the box in order to attach the computer bits and pieces and then reassemble it.
Lightweight and compact models are easy to pack and take with you on hikes or to star parties, which is why we considered the weight of each telescope too. Other factors, like backlit buttons, are helpful when you're trying to locate a star on the handheld control. Nearly every telescope on our lineup includes a finderscope, a small scope that places a crosshair or red laser dot on your target so you can quickly and easily line up your main optics.
What Else Is Important in Choosing a Telescope for Beginners?
The way you find the stars you want to look at varies from telescope to telescope. If you're a do-it-yourself beginner astronomer, you might prefer a simple scope that lets you point and aim to find the morning or evening star (aka Venus – yes, both, depending on where you are). If you're still learning the night sky, a go-to telescope might be better. Beginners who are scoping out the skies from their backyards might be interested in a specific, unique mount, while others who are packing up their telescopes for a hike where no city lights can interfere may be more interested in a more common, easier-to-transport mount.
Also, no one is perfect – not even the manufacturers that mass-produce these telescopes. It's important to buy a telescope from a manufacturer that offers a strong warranty. The standard warranty offers one or two years of protection, but the best warranties cover any defects for the lifetime of your telescope.
Stability & Tracking
Some of the telescopes we used were extremely stable in our tests, with the image we were gazing at only budging when we bumped the tripod or the scope – and even then, only slightly. Others were rocked by the wind or even a breeze, so we considered the stability of the mounts in this score.
The type of mount you use can be all about personal preference, or you might need a specific mount for different kinds of stargazing, which is why we didn't score the type of mount each telescope includes. An altazimuth mount allows you to move the telescope left to right and up and down. It is the most common mount for telescopes and is usually paired with a tripod.
If you live in an area with minimum ambient light, you could benefit from a telescope with a large aperture and a Dobsonian mount, which is a unique altazimuth mount that's very easy to set up and use. These telescopes are also generally less expensive than other entry-level telescopes. Equatorial mounts have a steep learning curve, but they are ideal for astrophotography because they follow the rotation of the earth.
For beginners, a telescope that helps you identify stars and planets can be very useful, which is why we gave more credit to go-to telescopes. Those that are computerized usually include a library full of stars, planets, galaxies and other space details that you can peruse and select with a handheld remote. The telescope then guides you to the specified star, or, in the case of those that are also motorized, the telescope moves and finds the star for you.
Warranty & Support
Defects happen. You want to make sure the telescope you buy has a solid warranty that protects you if you're unlucky enough to get a lemon. There's also a chance you may buy a telescope that doesn't work as you expected – maybe you aren't a fan of the mount, or you decide a reflector scope would be better for you than a refractor. Some of the telescopes on our lineup offer a money-back guarantee, but only within 30 or 45 days.
Most warranties cover your telescope for one or two years, but Levenhuk offers a lifetime guarantee, which can be reassuring when you spend hundreds on a telescope. The instructional videos on both Orion's and Levenhuk's websites were very helpful when we were assembling the telescopes, which is why these manufacturers ranked higher in this category than some of the other telescope makers.
Telescopes for Beginners: Our Verdict and Recommendations
After we got up close and personal with Betelgeuse, the moon and the Pleiades star cluster, we found that the best telescope for beginners is the Celestron NexStar 130SLT. Its large aperture and excellent clarity gave us a great view of our night sky. Although this one gave us just a bit of trouble when we set it up, it was a favorite among users – it returned beautiful images of stars and star clusters.
The Orion StarSeeker IV 130 is also a large go-to telescope, and it too is easy to set up and use. The alignment was easy enough: We chose a bright star in the sky and it aligned itself. You can't use this scope during the day, though, because it's a reflector, so images would be upside down.
Our third choice, the Levenhuk SkyMatic 135, also takes a little longer to set up and start using, but its wide aperture offers crisp images. This telescope also offers the most stability, which helps produce a high image quality. Both of these traits make the Levenhuk SkyMatic 135 ideal for astrophotography.
It was difficult to choose a favorite because each telescope was fun and relatively easy to use. We found each one we tested had merits, such as the iOptron SmartStar R80. This was one of the most automatic go-to telescopes we used. After setting it up, we just chose a star or planet on a list and the tiny mount would move to the location.
If you’re looking for the most telescope for your money, the Orion SkyQuest XT4.5 gives you 114 mm-aperture for less than $300, and it’s on a sturdy and easy-to-use Dobsonian mount.
Looking for a telescope but on a budget? The Celestron Explorascope 60AZ costs less than $100. It has the smallest aperture of any of the telescopes on our list, but for a beginner, you’re still going to see awe-inspiring, detailed views of the moon and some of the closer star clusters on a dark, starry night.
A telescope is the perfect gift for yourself or a loved one, and it can bring years of entertainment, education and inspiration. Learn more by reading our beginner telescope reviews to find out which one suits you best.